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Baltimore Symphony wraps up circus programs with operas, ballet

In one of the best known moments from opera, the character of the traveling entertainer Canio in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" reluctantly puts on his clown costume, the last thing he wants to do after a distressing incident in his private life. But the audience expects to be entertained, he sings, so he must laugh anyway and make the people applaud.

I don't mean to get too maudlin, but that image crossed my mind last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gathered onstage for another of this month's series of circus-theme programs. This one, as fate would have it, even included some ballet dancers cavorting in the same sort of Pierrot costume Canio wears in "Pagliacci."

The BSO players could not have been totally in the mood for making merry, not after accepting a new contract this week that will see them continue to lose financial ground -- they'll end up in a few years just about where they were, salary-wise, in 2001; more than a decade of treading water. Once again, the musicians have taken a financial blow to help the BSO stay on solid ground; last year's concessions weren't enough. (BSO staffers have been hit, too, during this recession.)

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So there the players were Thursday night, listening stone-faced to pre-concert remarks by Lainy LeBow-Sachs, a vice chair of the BSO's board of directors, who spoke of their "painful" sacrifices and suggested that a standing ovation was in order. The audience obliged heartily; the musicians sat through it stoically, still largely expressionless. But expression was abundant once Marin Alsop took the stage and led the orchestra in one of the most unusual and captivating programs of the season.

Never mind that it's hard to relate the circus concept to the two short American operas on the first half of the bill -- Samuel Barber's 10-minute "A Hand of Bridge," about two rather dysfunctional married couples; and George Gershwin's 20-minute "Blue Monday," about sentiment, jealousy and violence in a Harlem nightclub. The rest of the evening, devoted to Igor Stravinsky's ballet "Pulcinella," given complete and with choreography, offered a kind of Big Top fun.

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The 1959 Barber opera is a remarkably compact creation, propelled by a recurring bit of slinky, spiky music that leads to into jazzy or Broadway tunes one moment, and lush, operatic arias the next. It's much too intimate a work for Meyerhoff. A lot of the text (by Gian Carlo Menotti) got swallowed up in this large space, and there's some awfully colorful, even off-color, stuff in there worth hearing distinctly as the opera's four bridge-players reveal their inner secrets. But the young artists from Washington National Opera brought dynamic vocalism and acting to the assignment: Jennifer Lynn Waters (revealing a particularly appealing soprano voice as the melancholy Geraldine), Aleksey Bogdanov (David), Jesus Daniel Hernandez (Bill), Cynthia Hanna (Sally).

Kevin Newbury, who did the semi-staging for Bernstein's "Mass" with the BSO last year, devised an effective presentation for "A Hand of Bridge" and "Blue Monday." The latter, written in 1922, cannot be mistaken for a masterwork. Much of it is, well, laughable. The libretto (by B.G. DeSylva) is a mess of racial stereotypes, not to mention theatrical and operatic cliches. But what a cool piece it is just the same, revealing Gershwin's early thinking about how to approach something like an opera (he'd do it up right a decade or so later in "Porgy and Bess").

Alsop, who conducted the premiere recording in 1993, has obvious affection for the score, and she drew tight, colorful playing from the orchestra. The "Blue Monday" singers -- alums (and one current student) of Morgan State University -- made what they could of the silly story and lavished considerable sensitivity on the music (they were gently amplified). Issachah Savage, as the gambler Joe, even made the imitation mother-dear Irish ballad sound inspired. Kenneithia Mitchell offered a sweet, pure soprano as the suspicious Vi.

The neo-classical charm and brilliance of "Pulcinella" emerged tellingly, thanks to Alsop's deft tempos and phrasing, and a great deal of refined, warmly nuanced playing from the orchestra. The Baltimore School for the Arts Dancers executed the witty choreography by Lisa de Ribere with aplomb (a couple of the most energetic ensemble routines recalled the Dancing Santas in the BSO's annual Holiday Spectacular). Soprano Emily Albrink, tenor Robert Baker and bass Brendan Cooke made vibrant contributions -- an extra bonus of having the complete score performed (usually, only the all-instrumental suite from "Pulcinella" is heard in concert).

Although clouded at the end by the unfortunate news about the musicians' contract, this month of circus-y diversion has been remarkably enjoyable -- terrific repertoire (much of it rarely encountered), vivid presentation. I even started to like the smell of popcorn and the sight of cotton candy in the lobby.

This finale will be repeated in full Sunday afternoon; "Pulcinella" will be the focus on Saturday morning and evening.

PHOTO BY DAVE HOFFMANN COURTESY OF BSO

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